Jordan Walden rolls in closer's role
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Jordan Walden is still working out the details of this whole closer thing.
When he came into Wednesday's game, the stadium operations people played the 1972 Deep Purple song "Smoke on the Water," the tune that once accompanied Troy Percival to the Angel Stadium mound. Walden, who was born 15 years after the song came out, had nothing to do with the choice.
The Los Angeles Angels' hard-throwing, 23-year-old Texan is into rap and country music, not rock 'n' roll. He suggested a rap song, but it got rejected.
"They said there were too many bad words. They couldn't find a clean version," Walden said.
Get the impression this transition wasn't exactly carefully choreographed? In an ideal world, the Angels would have eased Walden into one of the most stressful jobs in baseball.
These aren't smooth times for Angels pitching. The bullpen was such a mess during the first four games in Kansas City that Angels manager Mike Scioscia jumped in quickly. He demoted Fernando Rodney to the eighth inning and handed the closer job -- kind of hallowed ground at Angel Stadium -- to Walden, who had become a relief pitcher just a year earlier.
Down two starting pitchers (Joel Pineiro with injury and Scott Kazmir with ineffectiveness), the Angels couldn't afford much patience with their bullpen, so Scioscia acted more quickly than he normally would.
It has worked out so far. Walden hasn't given up a run in 6 1/3 innings, nor did anyone score on him all spring. Oh, and the Angels' bullpen has been practically unhittable since Scioscia shuffled roles, carrying a 23 1/3-inning scoreless streak into Friday's game in Chicago.
It has all happened so quickly that the Angels haven't had time to stick Walden with a proper nickname, a must for a closer in Anaheim. First the Angels had "Percy," then "Frankie" -- the Angels rarely called Francisco Rodriguez "K-Rod" -- then Brian "Tito" Fuentes. Scot Shields, another late-inning stalwart, was -- get this -- "Shieldsy."
The young guys on the Angels call Walden "J-Wall," his nickname since high school. It hasn't caught on with veterans yet.
"I don't know, 'Waldo'?" catcher Bobby Wilson said. That sounds intimidating, doesn't it? First, the ominous music, then in comes a big, bearded guy with a 100 mph fastball named Waldo?
"OK, how about 'Sore Hand'?" Wilson offered.
Catchers say Walden's fastball can leave a bruise on your palm if you don't get your mitt in the right place. He throws harder than 95 with every fastball, has touched 102 in the past and averages about 98. Furthermore, the ball has a cutting action, which makes it feel heavy when it's slamming into the mitt or hitting the narrow end of a bat.
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"You catch other guys who throw hard and it's a light ball, so you don't really feel it," Hank Conger said. "His ball has some run to it. If you catch it the wrong way, it'll definitely sting."
Walden's rapid rise might have caught the league by surprise, but he struck many people in the Angels' organization as a closer-in-waiting the minute he went to the bullpen. Walden had a 5.25 ERA as a starter at Double-A Arkansas in 2009. His arm was often sore and his velocity was down. He had thrown as hard as 98 mph in high school, but he was struggling to stay in the low 90s.
As a reliever, he didn't spend long in one place, killing a few months at Double-A, a couple of months at Triple-A and then making his debut with the Angels on Aug. 22, 2010. Players who were with Walden in the minor leagues saw a different pitcher once he didn't have to worry about maintaining his stuff through seven innings.
"Out of the 'pen, he just lets it go," Peter Bourjos said. "It's a lot more fun to see that, and when you're hitting 100 on the gun, that's got to help his confidence."
Bourjos and and right fielder Torii Hunter turn around after each of Walden's pitches to see what radar reading pops up.
"Torii and I always look at each other and laugh," Bourjos said.
Some pitchers are suited to starting. They have calm personalities that allow them to attack hitters without exhausting themselves after a few pitches, no matter how trying an at-bat. It takes a different personality to throw 100 pitches in a game than to throw 15 to 20. Walden enjoys working in short spurts. It takes less mental energy and more physical energy.
The challenge for him has been channeling his adrenaline in a productive way. He has been working with team psychologist Ken Ravizza on breathing exercises to help keep him calm when he's on the mound.
"When I first got out there in the game, I felt like it was my debut all over again. I was anxious, nervous," Walden said. "I had to calm myself down and relax, learn when to breathe and when not to breathe."
It hasn't looked that hard from the outside. In 21 2/3 major league innings, Walden has struck out 31 batters. Scioscia didn't need to see a big sample size of that to realize Walden was suited for this role, even if the transition came a bit quicker than he would have liked. Walden seems to have rolled with it.
"I didn't expect it this early in the season, but it happened and I'm ready to do whatever I have to do," he said.Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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